Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mics used in The King's Speech

© 2011 Malcolm Addey
From left to right: Marconi/Reisz carbon mic,
BBC AXB ribbon, STC 4017 moving coil (dynamic)

I recently had a chance to watch The King’s Speech, winner of this year’s Best Picture Oscar. The film was good and deserved the award. Being involved in the recording business, I could not help but notice the interesting looking microphones that the King spoke into and wondered what kind of mics they were. Most of the mics seen throughout the film were puck-shaped and spring mounted. There was one mic that had a sideways teardrop shape, also spring mounted. I turned to someone who might know about these things - Malcolm Addey.

“The movie itself was very well done except for the accuracy of the mics and broadcast equipment. … All the mics used in the film were mock-ups of carbon mics, spring mounted in rings - a type which had gone out of use long before King George VI came to the throne. In fact, ribbon mics, the BBC-Marconi type AXB, had come into general use by 1935. For outdoor use, the STC 4017 moving coil was the standard during the period the motion picture covered. Either type would have been accurate for the final speech scene”

So the mics you see in the film were carbon mics. The only problem is that they would not have been the mics used by the King.

Malcolm continues, “By the mid 30s the use of carbon mics had been completely discontinued by the BBC. The teardrop (or bomb) shaped mic you mention was, in fact, an early condenser mic manufactured by Western Electric used by the BBC between 1931 and 1935. Condenser mics were largely experimental at the time, proving to be very unreliable and subject to going noisy under even moderately humid conditions.

The following are comments from an email by my friend and colleague Chris Owen, a BBC engineer. We are both historians and collectors of vintage broadcast equipment.”

Malcolm’s colleague’s comment:

“Have now seen the King's Speech. Great film, but so many mistakes on the equipment and microphone front. George V's Christmas Broadcast at the start of the film had the Engineers using OBA/8 (not invented until 1937), The microphones in front of George V were the later ones c1936 that were used for the first time for Edward VIII's broadcast in 1936. The mics BBC stands were all STM/11 or STM2/1 and date from just post WW2. The microphone used for the speech at the end of the film were just SO wrong. There is no way any broadcast would have been done using a carbon mic in 1939. It would have been STC 4017s and two of them. Cue lights were all wrong. They had a 1950's wall cue light (same as on our Gent clocks), but badly mounted on a wooden box. Finally (for now), the Western Electric / STC Bomb condenser microphone was obviously a replica, but the nearest thing to being correct. So sad when they could easily have got it all right.”

There you have it.

Suggested sources for more information:

1) BBC Engineering 1922 - 1972 by Edward Pawley, published in 1972 by BBC Publications. According to Malcolm, the book has become rare and much sought after and is considered to be the bible on the subject.

2) BBC Year Books published annually from 1928 to 1987, e.g. The BBC Year-Book 1934

3) Howard Tremaine's Audio Cyclopedia (USA) is another good source for professional audio information.

Thanks to Malcolm Addey and Chris Owen for the historical information.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Using Live to 2-Track

Malcolm Addey came in to record Nanette Natal on February 11, 2011. He used live to 2-track to analog 1/4" tape to record her and her band in Studio B. Malcolm and Nanette were kind enough to allow us to share how their session was recorded.

The instrumentation was electric upright bass (sometimes known as a pogo stick), drums (drummer also played bongos and bell tree), electric doubling acoustic guitar, and Nanette who also played acoustic guitar and sang vocals. The session layout in Studio B is shown here.

I asked Malcolm a few questions about the live to 2-track recording method.

1. What is a live to 2-track session (definition)?

The actual real time mix of the live performance is stored onto the 2-track medium of choice with no possibility of further post session remixing. Although the mix is final, however, corrections are possible by editing. Live to 2-track stereo (except for mono) was the only recording method available before the advent of multiple track recording using 3 or more tracks. The introduction of which increased recording budgets enormously because of tape cost, extensive use of studio time and the ability for performers to overdub and remix ad infinitum.

2. What preparation / setup do you like to use for this type of session?

The acoustic isolation on instruments or vocalists essential on a multi track session is obviously not such a consideration as on a live 2-track date. Therefore I am able to place the musicians much closer to each other. Sometimes this obviates the necessity of using headphones - a situation I always prefer as musicians play much more naturally when they can hear themselves acoustically in the same room. All situations are different, of course, and my decisions would be based upon, among other things, the type of music involved, the studio space and the comfort of the musicians themselves.

3. When is live to 2-track a good option?

There is something exciting and immediate about this form of recording not enjoyed in multiple track techniques which rather tend to produce a "we can overdub that" or "we can fix it in the mix" mentality. But, of course, this is the only option when the multiple track technology is an integral part of the creative process as in pop and rock. Essential ingredients to success are an engineer who has much experience in this form of recording and a producer with a full understanding of both the limitations and advantages of direct to stereo.

4. What are some (notable) examples of a live to 2-track session (that you worked on)?

A difficult question. I would estimate that about a third to half of my working life's output of more than 50 years was recorded in this format. I do not subscribe to the view that a given recording's association with super star names is any measurement of that recording's note. Too subjective and for others to judge.

5. Do you have a favorite live to 2-track session story you would like to share?

Not specifically but the most common is the reaction when a performer who asks to "punch in" something is told it is not possible!

6. Was there something special or different about the way you engineered the Nanette Natal session in Studio B?

Nanette likes the warmth and natural dynamics of the sound I produce for her. Contributing to that, I'm sure, is my choice and placement of microphones and avoidance of EQ. As mentioned above the musicians are placed as comfortably close to each other as possible with minimal use of screens. Nanette herself stands freely among them and not in a booth. Avatar's Studio B is the perfect room for her and if one listens carefully, the sound of the room can clearly be heard. In no small measure is this due to the lack of need for acoustical isolation.

One final point. Direct to 2-track stereo recording is not to be confused with stereo recording with only two microphones. That is an entirely different subject!


You can watch and listen to a short clip from their recording session. Malcolm Addey was assisted by Avatar’s Aki Nishimura.